Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Sir William Hamilton (1788–1856)
 
[Sir William Hamilton was born at Glasgow in 1788, and was educated at the College there. At the age of nineteen he went to Halliol as an exhibitioner on Mr. Snell’s foundation, and in 1810 was placed in the first class in literis humanioribus. He passed advocate three years later, but did little or nothing at the bar. Defeated in 1817 by Mr. John Wilson in his candidature for the chair of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh, he was appointed to that of Civil History in the same University in 1821. But the scanty emoluments of his office gradually dwindled to nothing, and Hamilton ceased to lecture. In 1829 there appeared in the Edinburgh Review an article on the philosophy of Cousin—the first of a series of vigorous papers which he contributed to that periodical on philosophical topics, and on other questions such as University Reform, and which have been reprinted in a volume of Discussions. In 1836 Sir William was preferred by the Town Council of Edinburgh to the chair of Logic and Metaphysics, whence for twenty years, in spite of the physical weakness occasioned by a paralytic stroke in 1844, he diffused an influence such as probably few philosophical teachers in recent times have been able to exercise over their pupils. During the latter portion of his life he projected many undertakings which he was never to carry through; such, for example, as a life of Luther, for the execution of which his exceptional acquaintance with the literature of the reformer’s age peculiarly qualified him. He published in 1849 an edition of Reid’s works, with copious notes and appendices. Its 914th and last page breaks off in the middle of a sentence, which was never completed. A pamphlet from his pen upon the Scottish non-intrusion question, entitled Be not Schismatics or Martyrs by mistake (1843), is a typical specimen of his controversial manner, and attracted much attention at the time. Two courses of lectures, delivered in alternate years, one on Logic, the other on Metaphysics, were published after his death, which took place in 1856.]  1
 
IT is very handsomely allowed by his posthumous opponent that Sir William Hamilton was a man “of abundant acuteness and more than abundant learning”; that he was the “founder of a school of thought”; and that he was “one of the ablest, the most far-sighted, and the most candid” of his way of thinking. Such compliments may or may not be designed to enhance the triumph of his assailant, but no stronger testimony to Sir William Hamilton’s greatness could be brought forward than the mere fact that his system was made the peg upon which Mr. John Mill deliberately chose to hang his vindication of the utilitarian doctrines. By the present generation, which has never beheld the noble features and the commanding presence, which has never been thrilled by the sonorous voice, nor fascinated by the kindling eye, of which his pupils speak with one accord,—some such testimony is certainly required. For Sir William Hamilton’s consequence in the realm of philosophy has diminished in proportion as time has necessarily contracted the sphere in which his personality asserted itself; insomuch that to-day the “school of thought” which he founded is almost barren of pupils; while for the present, at all events, the Necessary Laws of Thought, the Quantification of the Predicate, and the Philosophy of the Conditioned have withdrawn into obscurity.  2
  It would be vain to deny that for this result Sir William Hamilton himself is largely to blame. The scope of his reading was immense; his knowledge of the ancient and modern philosophers was well-nigh boundless in extent. But there is some little plausibility in Mr. Mill’s criticism that the time he devoted to mere erudition permitted of his giving only the remains of his mind to the real business of thinking; and, at any rate, it is plain that the mass of material he had accumulated was too unwieldy for skilful and workmanlike handling. An insatiable appetite for learning was accompanied by an impaired power of assimilation; and the quotations with which he is so fond of fortifying his propositions can often be compared, in respect of relevance and conclusiveness, to nothing save to some of the Scriptural “proofs” subjoined to the answers in the Shorter Catechism. Moreover, he has left no truly satisfactory and adequate exposition of his views, which have in many cases to be collected from scattered and disjointed dicta, and frequently present inconsistencies which a more thorough and systematic treatment might easily have removed. The Lectures, written, each series in five months, each lecture the night before it was delivered—and once so written, never altered—are full of the faults which such a method of composition must needs beget; and the most coherent and satisfying statement of his philosophical position must be sought in his elaborate commentary on the writings of another.  3
  Sir William Hamilton’s English is bald without simplicity, and severe without impressiveness. The Lectures, it is true, contain passages of considerable power and animation when he is making preparations to clinch his argument with an extract from the poets. But, in common with the rest of his writings, they are so interwoven with quotations, and these frequently of great length, that the movement of his prose is arrested before any impetus has been acquired, and the curious reader is hurried away from Hamilton to some one else. It is consequently peculiarly difficult to do justice to Hamilton’s style by means of selections. Even at its best, however, it is wholly destitute of the charm which springs from aptly arranged words and nicely balanced sentences. Its supreme merit is clearness. He states his propositions I., II., III., as articulately as though he were drawing the pleadings in an action (indeed, a turn of phrase here and there irresistibly reminds one that he was an advocate before he became a professor), and in the discussion of each separate proposition he invokes the aid even of the printer’s art to purge his statement of all possible ambiguity by means of capitals, italics, and inset paragraphs. The worst of all this painful lucidity is that it is often indistinguishable from pedantry. But the philosopher whose task it is to be to win the ear of the world once more for the system of Common Sense (so-called) will do well to imitate Sir William’s zeal for accuracy and exactitude, though these excellences are doubtless attainable at a somewhat less serious sacrifice of attractiveness and grace.  4
 
 
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